Illustration by Ana.

Illustration by Ana.

The sun is not just at the center of our solar system; it’s arguably at the center of our lives. We literally revolve around this enchanting ball of light, and it is the primary source of energy on Earth. It’s also, unfortunately, a deadly carcinogen that’s trying to kill us all with ultraviolet rays.

Since the late 1970s, our ozone layer—which absorbs most of the sun’s damaging UV rays—has been losing about four percent of its volume every year, so it’s more important than ever to wear sunscreen. But there are a billion choices, and most of us have basically no idea what we’re slathering on our faces and bodies. So, for anyone who has ever looked at a sunscreen label and wondered what the hell butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane is, may I present: the ROOKIE SUNSCREEN FAQ. I promise it won’t be boring. Sunscreen is fun! (How desperate do I sound right now?) Let’s start with the question I know everyone is thinking:

Do I seriously have to wear it every day?

’Fraid so! Sun damage is cumulative, meaning whenever a UV ray hits your skin, it goes into a bank account that your body could cash in later for all these wonderful prizes and more: melanoma, malignant moles, premature wrinkles, age spots, and possibly DEATH. But I’m not trying to scare you or anything, because you can help prevent ALL of that stuff by…wearing sunscreen!

A good sunscreen works by protecting you from the two types of UV rays that assault your bod on the daily: UVA and UVB. Both are villains, but they have different evil specialties. UVB is a short-wave ray whose specialty is giving you horrid sunburns by damaging the skin’s surface layers. UVA is a long-wave ray that gives people leather-face by penetrating deep into the skin. The other thing about UVA rays is that they can go through glass, so you’re not always shielded from them inside a house or car. Both kinds of rays are associated with skin cancer.
How much should I put on?

For your face and neck, use a blob the size of a nickel. For your body, you’ve maybe heard that you’re supposed to slather on about two tablespoons, or a shot-glass’s, worth? As if anyone’s going to dump their sunscreen into a shot glass before applying it.

not helpful copy

Another method, which has always worked for me, is to squeeze sunscreen out in thick, long lines across each body part that will be exposed on a given day, like so:

lines

And then rub it in. You’ll be using a little more than the recommended amount, but that’s better than not enough.
What does SPF mean?

SPF = sun protection factor. It’s a system used in the U.S., Europe, and other parts of the world to measure how long you can expect a given sunscreen to protect you from the sun. With an SPF of 15, for example, you can spend 15 times longer in the sun without damaging your skin than you can without it. Unfortunately, the SPF system is flawed and confusing. First of all, the SPF number indicates the amount of protection you’re getting from ONLY UVB rays. Second, it doesn’t consider that the majority of people aren’t applying nearly enough sunscreen to get the stated amount of protection. If you’re only dabbing it on, an SPF of any number ends up giving you less protection than you think. Hopefully we’ll have a better system soon, because we need one!
What SPF is best?

Between 30 and 50 is recommended. The sunscreens that go way into the SPF stratosphere (like SPF 100 or whatever) don’t really protect you that much better than the SPF 50 ones, which filter about 98 percent of the bad stuff.
What the heck is in this stuff?

ingredients

Let’s decipher this mess. Here are a couple things you need to know:

1. There are two types of sunscreen agents: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens absorb into the top layer of your skin and soak up UV rays before they hit your precious skin cells. Physical sunscreens are inert minerals that just straight-up sit on top of your face to form a wall between your skin and the sun. Physical sunscreens can be kind of thick and yucky because you’re basically rubbing UV-reflecting mud all over yourself, whereas chemical sunscreens are mostly see-through after they sink into your skin.

In a chemical sunscreen, you might find any combination of these common active ingredients, but probably not all of them at once:

• Avobenzone (aka Parsol 1789, aka butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane)
• Ensulizole
• Octinoxate
• Octylcrylene
• Oxybenzone
• Octisalate
• Homosalate
• Mexoryl SX (aka ecamsule)

They all pretty much work the same way, and they don’t have adverse effects unless you have sensitive skin (we’ll get to that in a minute).

In a physical sunscreen, you’ll find either titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. They don’t have notable side effects, aside from making a person look like Ug from Salute Your Shorts.

2. Different sunscreen ingredients combat different rays. Physical sunscreens are superstars because zinc oxide and titanium dioxide each protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Certain ingredients found in chemical sunscreens, like octylcrylene and octinoxate, do that too. When you’re looking for a chemical ’screen, check the active-ingredients list to find one that contains at least one UVB-fighting ingredient and one UVA-fighting ingredient.

But how will you know what those are? Because I’m about to tell you. These ingredients block UVA rays:

• Avobenzone (aka Parsol 1789, aka butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane)
• Mexoryl SX (aka ecamsule)

These ones block UVB rays:

• Ensulizole
• Homosalate
• Oxybenzone
• Octisalate

I know it probably seems hypervigilant to scrutinize labels for this stuff, but sometimes a label will claim that the product offers “broad spectrum” protection when it doesn’t actually have both UVA- and UVB-blocking ingredients. It helps to be informed.

As for the inactive ingredients, that’s mostly stuff that gives the lotion its texture. At the very bottom of the ingredients list you’ll also find the preservatives, which are essential for preventing nasty bacteria and mold from growing in your product (and possibly on your face!). Most preservatives—even parabens—are safe in the teeny tiny amounts used in beauty products.

BONUS POINTS if your sunscreen contains antioxidants, which you’ll also find among the inactive ingredients. Antioxidants are natural extracts and vitamins that boost your sunscreen’s efficacy. Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol, tocopherol acetate), vitamin B6 (niacinamide), vitamin A (retinol, retinyl palmitate), vitamin C (this one has many aliases: ascorbic acid, L-ascorbic acid, ascorbyl palmitate, sodium ascorbyl phosphate, retinyl ascorbate, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate), and tea extract (camellia sinensis leaf) are common ones to look for.